The 47-year-old Lexington man has competed occasionally but admits he wasn't very good. Instead, with the help of friends in the sport, the veteran steel fabricator found his own niche: making the custom tables used in competition.
"I recognized right off that I was way better at building the things," he said with a laugh.
And he's been getting better ever since.
Two years ago, Mathews became only the second worldwide table manufacturer sanctioned for competition by the World Armwrestling Federation, the sport's governing body for international tournaments. Mathews' company, STB Customs, is the only U.S. manufacturer with this designation.
Professional arm wrestlers have been competing almost exclusively in the standing position since early 1990s, a preference that created the demand for a sturdy, specialized table 40 inches high. Covered in vinyl, the tables have two elbow pads and a bar on each end for the competitors to grip for leverage.
The tables need to be sturdy to stand up to the force generated by two powerful 300-pound men pushing each other with all their might, Mathews said. At the same time, they also need to be flexible enough to break down easily for shipping, which can be a challenge, he said.
The table-manufacturing business is dominated by Polish arm wrestler Igor Mazurenko, who has supplied tables for international competitions for about two decades. Mathews said he modeled the function of his tables after Mazurenko's, but he wanted to improve the form by adding the custom graphic designs his buyers were requesting.
"I got this idea that I wanted to build the nicest arm-wrestling table in the world," Mathews said.
Mathews has worked as a steel fabricator and welder for nearly three decades and is the general manager of Advanced Welding in Vancouver. He first learned the trade at R.D. Olson Manufacturing in Kelso.
Mathews got involved in arm-wrestling through his brother-in-law, Brian Storie of Kelso, who promotes and competes in arm-wrestling tournaments around the region. Mathews found the specs for the first table and put it together for practice.
"I thought, 'That was kind of fun. I want to build a better one, a nicer one," Mathews said.
Through his connections, he met national champion arm wrestler Bill Collins, who is also a referee and tournament organizer. He said Collins told him to bring his tables to the World Armwrestling Federation championship in Mesquite, Nev., in 2010, where they would be inspected by the group's international governing board.
At the time, Mazurenko was the sole sanctioned manufacturer and highly respected in the sport. When Mathews got word that he would be on the same level as the legend, he said he felt a wave of excitement.
"It was a huge personal accomplishment for me. I didn't care at that point if I ever built another table ever. It was just that I set out to achieve something, and I succeeded," Mathews said.
In four years, Mathews estimates he's built about 20 tables. He's shipped to customers as far away as Israel and has supplied tables for the national championships in both the United States and Canada. The world championships tends to use the tables manufactured closest geographically, so Mathews said he expects to debut there in 2015, when the event will be staged in Las Vegas.
Mathews' tables sell for about $500, and he does most of the work in his garage in Lexington. He said he's improved the design, fashioning a sturdier weld a couple years ago after customers said the tables would loosen after heavy use.
"Since 2008, it's been a big learning curve of figuring out where the problems occur," Mathews said.
Mathews, who also works as a longshoreman in Portland, said he doesn't have time to grow the business and barely breaks even, but that doesn't bother him. He's just happy his work has been recognized.
"Every piece of the table is handmade by me," Mathews said.